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Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden
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Kingfishers Catch Fire

by Rumer Godden

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Sophie Ward, according to her Aunt Portia, has never learned the law of cause and effect. She does as she sees fit, usually with the best of intentions, and then puzzles over why things didn't work out as she planned. She married a handsome man, who ought to have had a spiffing career, but that didn't turn out quite the way she expected either, and when she found herself stuck with little to do and no one to do it with on one of his remote postings in Bengal, she decided to take matters into her own hands, and find things for herself to do. Her daughter, Teresa, lost track of how many times they moved, but wherever they went Teresa clung to certain objects that she considered essential...their books, her doll Pussy Maria, her little brother's tricycle, a little gold carriage clock...these things were her security. Her mother offered none; whenever she had a new idea, she dove relentlessly after it, much like the kingfishers that plunged into Dal Lake near Srinigar in Kashmir, hoping to catch yet another elusive darting fish in the shadows. At last, however, following the death of her husband, and a long bout of illness during which Sophie and her children were cared for by the Sisters at the Mission in Srinigar, Sophie found the spot where she felt she could---must---settle. A dilapidated house called Dhilkusha (roughly, "heart's delight") seemed to offer the chance to live simply, "like the peasants", and become herself at last. Her good intentions often reveal her ignorance, and her attempts to help the local people do not go over well. Ultimately it takes a near tragedy for Sophie to begin to understand where it all went wrong, and how much of it was her own doing. This is a deceptively simple story. There are many many profound elements explored, from the nature of a mother/daughter relationship to the culture clash of English mem with Kashmiri villagers; from the tribal tensions and religious conflicts that still afflict the region to the struggle of a single woman to make her place in a male-dominated, couple-oriented society. This surprisingly thought-provoking tale is a minor masterpiece. ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Oct 29, 2015 |
This novel, set in 1920s India, is the story of Sophie - a young, beautiful widow with romantic notions, who decides to eke out her small pension by living 'as the Indians do' in a small house on a hillside in Kashmir. The scenery around her is beautiful - and beautifully described - but her almost wilful refusal to acknowledge the hardships and brutalities of poverty lead her to break the unwritten rules of the village, and create resentment and hostility.

Godden herself spent a winter living frugally in a Kashmir village, and apparently made a few of the mistakes that she ascribes to Sophie. But in the book, Sophie is counterpointed by her daughter Teresa, a nervous and conservative child, but one who is painfully aware of the social lines which Sophie is crossing. This highlighted, for me, how much Sophie was choosing to ignore - about the world around her but also her own character. Despite this, Godden still makes her a rather sympathetic character - I couldn't work out how she'd done this until close to the end of the book when Sophie, thinking back on what she has done, reminds herself that at least she has never tried to force people into holes they don't fit into. And she is almost always able to see the best in other people - sometimes more so than they deserve.

I found this a very interesting read - it could easily be taken as a light account of a woman's misadventures in a foreign country, but actually there are more depths to it.

Also, I would love to read a story from Teresa's point of view.

"When I am well," she said to Teresa, "I shall be quite different. Everything will be quite different."
"How?" asked Teresa cautiously.
"I was insouciant - careless and indifferent," explained Sophie. "Now I shall live and work for other people... like the missionaries do."
"You have to train to be a missionary, Sister Locke says so," said Teresa dampeningly, but Sophie was not listening.
"We shall be poor like the Kashmiris," said Sophie, and her eyes began to shine. "We shall be poor and frugal. We shall toil."
"What is toil?" asked Teresa.
"Work very very hard," said Sophie. "Like that," she pointed to the working women and Teresa looked down at them with fear and distaste.
( )
1 vote wandering_star | Nov 1, 2014 |
Sophie arrives in Kashmir to live alone with her two young children, the bright, but fearful Teresa and Moo (to who Godden never gives a voice). Initially they live on a houseboat, where Sophie learns of her estranged husband’s death. Almost immediately Sophie becomes ill, and the family are required to live at the Mission Hospital while Sophie recovers, a place where Dr Glenister, (Little) Dr Lochinvar and sisters Pilkington and Locke look after them making Teresa feel safe. Once when Sophie was still living with her husband the family had lived in Camberley – a place Teresa associates with safety a place a little like Finstead where The Aunts live, who send letters, advice, a small doll and plenty of disapproval.
Sophie already has a dream of how she and the children will live in Kashmir and as soon as she is back on her feet she puts her plan into action. Taking a small ramshackle house called Dilkhush for a nominal rent (pledging to undertake repairs herself) she plans to set up home in this isolated place during the harsh Kashmiri winter. Her plan is greeted by concern and disbelief by the westerners at the Mission Hospital who regard the Pundit (whose house she has taken) and other locals Sophie has befriended with suspicion. They are not the only ones to be concerned, eight year old Teresa does not share Sophie’s enthusiasm – she sees trouble ahead – understands much that her mother fails to see. For Sophie is blinded by her own enthusiasms – she is determined that they can live simply and frugally. Time and time again, Sophie shows she doesn’t really appreciate the deep poverty around her, fairly penniless herself Sophie believes herself to be as one with the people of the nearby village, thinking she can live as simply as they do. Her egotism and obstinate inverted snobbery prevents her from understanding how the local people exist, and how dangerous their jealousies and rivalries could become. Sophie’s arrival has caused great turmoil in the village – as the two warring families of the area compete for her attention and money.
As winter turns to spring and eventually to summer, the two local village families, the Dars and the Sheikhs become increasingly competitive. Using the local herbs, Sophie has taken to making her own medicine, with which she means to treat the villagers’ ailments, taking business away from the village barber. Sophie’s cook, Sultan, meanwhile is enjoying his position, creaming small amounts of money off the top Sultan now has a nice new jacket, he struts around importantly and is determined that Sophie should learn to properly appreciate him. The local herd children, who come up the mountain to tend their families’ animals, fill Teresa with fear, a fear her mother dismisses. Sophie remains blissfully unaware of all that threatens her and her children, as things take an altogether darker turn.
Sophie is not an entirely sympathetic character, her casual neglect of her children, as she exposes them to more and more danger while she pursues her unrealistic enthusiasms, make for uncomfortable reading. Young Teresa is something of a little heroine, she is the grown up to Sophie’s petulant child. In the background there hovers a potential rescuer from home, but the reader can’t quite imagine Sophie living conventionally in Camberley or Finstead. I won’t reveal just how the story ends – but Sophie has to wake up to some harsh realities before she can decide in which direction her future lies.
This was a brilliant book; Rumer Godden brings the region to life evocatively while showing that she deeply understands her characters. I think Godden writes about childhood extraordinarily well, with great poignancy she describes the fears of childhood, and how terrible it is to be let down by the adults who should know better. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Feb 2, 2014 |
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

These lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins head the prologue of this disturbing and haunting story.

This vintage Godden novel was new to me. I recently read the first volume of Godden’s autobiography, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, and was intrigued by the account of Godden’s three years in retreat in the Kashmir hill country, initially with only her two young daughters and later joined by several other women and children. Kingfishers Catch Fire was inspired by this time, and though the author states that this novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents are those that Godden herself experienced, living in the actual house Dilkusha, in the Kashmir hills, operating a herb farm and employing the local people in the enterprise.

In one of those satisfying occurrences of bookish serendipity, soon after I expressed a desire to find this novel, it came to me all by itself, and in the form I most enjoy – an older hardcover, in its original dust jacket. I had casually ducked into the Salvation Army store to give the book section a quick scan, and had cherry-picked a Rohinton Mistry paperpack (Tales from Firozsha Baag) out from among the mix of ex-bestsellers and inspirational religious books that fill the racks in this particular location. I was turning away to leave when something turquoise-blue and white caught my eye – a promising “older book” dust jacket peeking out from behind the fat paperbacks. My pulse quickened; after many years of second-hand book searching one seems to develop a sixth sense of when a find is at hand, and this time I was more than right – not only a good book, but the particular book recently on my mind. I gently pulled it out from the shelf, and there it was, in its gorgeous World Books (Reprint Society) zodiac-themed jacket. About as perfect as it gets!

The story is typical Rumer Godden fare. An Englishwoman living in India (Sophie Barrington-Ward, long separated from her husband and recently widowed) gets herself into an impossible situation, behaves badly, finds redemption and emerges changed for the better; all of the action witnessed and brought into critical focus through the eyes of a child, in this case the Sophie’s young daughter, 8-year-old Teresa. Like a stone thrown into still water, the ripples of each action spread far and touch things on all sides, with unintended and often tragic consequences.

When news of her husband’s death reaches her, Sophie and her two young children are living on a houseboat on the lake at Rawalpindi in the Kashmir region of what would be present-day Pakistan. At first she is conventionally sad but not particularly upset; after all, she has a comfortable private income and her widow’s pension will be coming now as well. She has made a rather unique life for herself where she is, rejecting the British-European social life of the region and instead fraternizing almost exclusively with the locals – the picturesque boatmen, vendors and shopkeepers – who see in Sophie a well-off patroness who spends generously and lives exclusively to please herself.

Sophie soon finds out that her husband has left huge debts; she manages to settle these but is left impoverished. Rather than returning to England in what she sees as defeat, Sophie ekes out an existence teaching “English to Hindu and Mohammedan ladies and Urdu to English people”. As the bitter winter goes on, Sophie falls ill and is taken in by the local Mission hospital. When she recovers, she decides to simplify her life even further, to “live local” as a peasant (better a “peasant” than a “poor white”, she tells herself), and moves into a tiny house farther up the mountain.

Sophie’s idea of living like a peasant clashes with the reality of the local population, who are truly poor. Her continual blunders lead to a tragic incident that brings her “simple life” dream crashing down. Her daughter Teresa is a hapless witness to Sophie’s decline into chaos, and is a key player in the climactic ending of the story.

Sophie does wake up from her dream; she does confront her weaknesses; she does at least begin to change, and by the end of the story we have come to view her with a certain admiration if not with whole-hearted affection. Sophie’s initial emotional neglect of Teresa and her younger brother Thomas (“Moo”) is a key factor in making her such an unlikeable protagonist; she is an egotistical reverse-snob who makes snap judgments based on what she’d wish people’s personalities to be, and she sticks firmly to those opinions, even while being repeatedly shown how wrong they are. Sophie’s progression from that person to someone much more unsure of herself is the real drama of the novel.

For a while near the end of the story I thought I was going to be disappointed in my author – it was all coming out a bit too pat – a white knight who has been lurking in the background the whole book reappears to “rescue” Sophie just as she is sorting things out for herself, and Sophie falls into his arms with relief, but Godden ultimately allows Sophie (and Teresa) to walk out of the book with head held high.

An ultimately satisfying story, though not what I would consider a comfort read; the windows it opens into human foolishness and frailty strike close to home, and we are very aware throughout that there is no such thing as a universally happy ending; the most any of us can hope for is reaching some sort of compromise with life, if we are indeed one of the lucky ones.

As always, beautiful descriptions of place; Rumer Godden paints word pictures like no other. The children, Teresa and Moo, are very sympathetically handled; Godden is ever firmly on the side of innocence, though she never hesitates to let her innocents suffer in the interest of moving the narrative along.

This is, in my opinion, one of Godden’s better novels. ( )
4 vote leavesandpages | Apr 16, 2013 |
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Rumer Goddenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Thomas, RosieIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; ...
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells.
Dedication
First words
Long afterwards... 'Not so long', said Toby, 'it's only two years'.
Quotations
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Sophie, an English ingénue with two children, arrives in Himalayan Kashmir to set up home in a tumbledown cottage surrounded by flowers and herbs. Settling down to live quietly, frugally and peacefully with her new neighbours, she is unaware of the turmoil her arrival provokes as the villagers compete fiercely for her patronage. Sophie's cook makes a drastic bid to secure his position, and the unwanted consequences are catastrophic . . .
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0330487833, Paperback)

A powerful novel about idealism and its consequences set in the Himalayas. Set in Kashmir, this is the story of Sophie, a young and idealistic Englishwoman with two young daughters who decides to set up house in a remote Indian Village. She finds a tumbledown house nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas and there plans to live peacefully and frugally and at one with the villagers around her. However, she is blissfully ignorant of the turmoil that her arrival produces with the villagers soon in fierce competition for her patronage. Sophie's cook is finally prompted to take action and the consequences of his innocent plotting are catastrophic. This is a poignant story of the conflict between idealism and reality which has strong parallels with Rumer Godden's own life and experiences in the foothills of the Kashmiri Himalaya.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:45 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Sophie, an English ingenue with two children, arrives in Himalayan Kashmir to set up home in a tumbledown cottage surrounded by flowers and herbs. Settling down to live quietly, frugally and peacefully with her new neighbours, she is unaware of the turmoil her arrival provokes as the villagers compete fiercely for her patronage.… (more)

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